Stoat Your Day Off Right

The other morning, I walked past Roger as he stood stock still and quiet in the back doorway.  His focused gaze clear.  Shhh.  Walk softly past.  I’m waiting to see something come out of that wall.

This particular wall is home to an abundance of life.  The rabbits who make quick get-aways when the dogs are outside.  Small birds making their nest homes among the narrow little cracks.  No doubt, the wall teams with bugs, worms, toads and loads of things we can’t easily see.   It must be an ongoing rave of tiny movements between the rocks and the mosses.  While Millie is chasing a ball, Brock is frequently sniffing parts of this wall, telling us there is a good deal more than meets the eye.  The plant life is spectacular.  Such a variety of mosses and lichen covering the rock surfaces it could easily impress a Japanese Zen gardener at Saihoji in Kyoto.

Crockern Farm Wall

It’s fair to say, Roger spots the majority of wildlife.  I may see it, but am often at a loss at identifying and naming. Roger sees, hears, and can identify the type of bird, animal and plant life easily.  It’s a skill I seek, but am most often off the mark.  Just when I think I can name the birds around Crockern, Roger will casually declare, “I just spotted a long-tailed blahdy-blah-blah”.  Lacking his skill set, who am I to question?

As Roger stood quietly in the doorway, his own wildlife hide, I crept up slowly to see what captured his attention.   He whispered coordinates of where to cast my view.   Just to the right of the Ash tree, down four stones and next to the tuft of ferns.  Do you see it?  There is a small, horizontal gap.   Watch that area.  This break in the wall, so easily unnoticed, suddenly was clear as day. The moss worn at the bottom of a decent sized opening.  Here is a faint, mini trail leading from the base of the hole out onto the yard.   Why hadn’t I taken notice before?  Millie and Brock frequently go sniffing about there. And while I chastised my untrained eyes, Roger pointed out the small movement in that particular void in the wall. I focused my attention and saw something.  A leaf caught in a clump of moss and fluttering in the breeze?  Then it happened again.  It was not a fluttering leaf, but a head busily poking in and out from the wall.  I too spied what Roger and the dogs already knew.  We have a Stoat!

Why this wall?  It seems a little close to the house.  Then again, we had a badger a few years ago burrowing about 30 feet from the front door. Unlike the badger or rabbit, a Stoat doesn’t dig its own burrow.  It’s opportunistic and will move throughout all the burrows and hideaways looking for prey. After it finds its prey, a Stoat will assume the home of the rodent it killed going so far as to decorate its new home with the skins and fur of said-dead-prey.  C-R-E-E-P-Y. That said, I suppose it is the ultimate in up-cycling.  With any number of stacks of logs, cracks in the walls, rock piles and the like, we’ve probably had a family of Stoats for some time.

Despite their approach to decorating their homes, they are adorable.  Those long and bendy bodies covered in a light brown fur on its back and a creamy white throat and belly.  Their tails tipped in black.  Cute they may be, this small little predator is just that, a predator. My thrill in spotting it was immediately offset with concern for our chickens.

Stoats are known for being well suited to hunting small rodents and rabbits. Bring it on little Stoat!  I just spent two days repairing the fourth of our six vegetable beds from rabbit damage.  Our local bunnies had burrowed up into the raised bed, despite a barrier beneath the soil.  I wouldn’t mind a small cull in this abundant population.

Our chickens are large hens, so should be okay with a Stoat moving into their neighbourhood.  And as long as there is an ample supply of rats, mice and other rodents, a stoat should be happy moving in and out of the wall’s hidden burrows.   Watching the activity at the bird feeders each morning, confirms a happy balance of supply and demand at Crockern.  Our chickens should be safely out of harm’s way.

One concern is stoats are known to eat eggs, but I’m not too worried about that since Brock occasionally does the same thing.  In Brock’s early puppy days, we witnessed him gingerly carrying an egg from the hens’ nest to the top of the hill.  Situating himself with a view, he would delicately position the egg between his paws .  Next, he would surgically make a small hole at the top of the egg, keeping the shell otherwise intact before slurp, slurp, slurping away at the raw egg.  Brock’s care in his thievery is impressive, as is his glossy coat.  Consequently, Roger and I check for eggs about ten times a day.  Brock and stoats be damned.

To encounter a Stoat before setting out on a journey is bad luck, or so goes the myth. As we stand in Roger’s make-shift observation spot, we both feel rather lucky to have spotted this Stoat and welcome yet another member to the diverse collective at Crockern.

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What’s in a name?

’Tis but thy name that is mine enemy:
What’s Montague? It is not hand nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet.

 

So sayeth Juliette, from her balcony, fully aware of the power behind a name as she poses this question to Romeo.  I can say, all these years later, her question of what’s in a name? remains.  And if she and Romeo had lived long enough to have a puppy, would they have struggled as we did to agree upon a name?

Nearly a year ago, April 2018, Roger and I brought home a puppy to join our Crockern family.  He is now fully grown into a beautiful, strong, affectionate and silly dog.

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But for weeks, we struggled to agree upon a name.   Dale Carnegie famously said, “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”  Now, I don’t know about that, but I do know names are powerful stuff, including a dog’s. It reflects personality.  It needs to be easy to shout across a field for recall.  But more, it says a lot about you.   Consider Fang v. Fluffy.

As a dedicated list maker, I was more than happy to create pages of name ideas in the weeks before bringing our puff ball home (no that’s not his name).   Roger and I considered each and promptly rejected most, and then all by the next day.  Hoping for some manner of inspiration we sought lists for dog names.  We dug deeper and consulted books on our shelves with Latin or local names for trees, plants, animals and birds.  One afternoon, I ran through an on-line list of baby names.  When that bore no fruit, I started looking at the names of authors, musicians, actors, you name it.  Briefly, each idea seemed pretty good until we thought about saying something like, “Sit (fill-in-the-blank-using-anything-from-our-really-endless-list-of-ideas)”.

How do people who have children do this?  How do they come up with names that will shape a personality, or certainly affect first impressions?  It is an onerous task.

Days before Roger and I picked up our puppy, I had returned from a visit to see my Dad.  My sister extended her visit as we were both increasingly concerned about Dad’s health and safety.  My Dad, known to many as Tom, knew Roger and I were going to pick up a puppy and had yet to select a name.   While chatting over the phone one night with my sister, our Dad proudly chimed in with the suggestion, “Name him Tommy!”  What could I say but, “Great Idea.  But Dad, do you really want a dog named after you?”  “Of course I do!”

But how could I? Roger and I have a Bantam cockerel named Tommy.  How could I name two animals in our lives the same thing?  That shows a complete lack of imagination.  Still, how could I let my Dad down?  Facing this dilemma I did the only thing I could, I lied.

Every time we spoke, my Dad would ask, “How’s Tommy?”  And I would say, “He’s great, Dad.  You’d love him.”  I couldn’t tell my Dad we didn’t have a name for the puppy yet. Our hope of inspiration upon bringing him home failed us.  With an energetic puppy with no name, I continued to tell my father “Tommy” was cute as could be and sent photos to prove the point.

We made an initial vet appointment and began to feel the pressure of not yet having a name for our young puppy.   The vet would want to know what to call him.  Puppy socialisation and training would need to begin soon.  We needed a name.

Our vet is a tall man and relatively young.  He worked for many years on farms with large animals before making the shift to the world of domestic animals (standing on a dry floor rather than in mud was a driving force as I see it).  He has an easy-going demeanour, floppy, curly hair, and a gentle giant way with animals. Roger and I both like and trust him with our dogs.  At this first appointment, he asked, “What’s this lad’s name?”  We confessed our inability to come up with anything. Without any hesitation he says, “I’d name him Brock.  He’s going to be a big boy.”

And just like that, we had a name:  Brock. It felt right, inspired in fact.  We didn’t need several lists, we just needed someone else to have an excellent idea.  I’d like to say Brock perked up his little ears and wagged his tail with delight with his new found identity.  Instead, he was blissfully unaware and tried to chew my zipper.

When we selected Brock, we thought he’d be a similar size to Millie.  And this is where the differences begin.  Millie never chewed.  Brock chews everything.  Millie loves to chase toys.  Brock loves to chase Millie’s tail.  Millie rushes out the door at night, barking away any evening predators.  Brock doesn’t bark at night, seeming cautious and a little uncertain; instead, he reserves his voice for the daylight hours when he tells every dog who passes the house to go away.  We have two very different dogs.

Turns out Brock (brocc, broc, broc’h) is Old English of Celtic origin.  I like that.  It also means Badger, and our Brock has a broad white strip up his nose.  He’s strong and, like a badger,  he has powerful legs and paws and loves to dig as evidenced by the state of our garden.  Millie chases balls and Brock chases the scent of all the subterranean life in the yard.

Up until my Dad died in August, he would ask after “Tommy.”  I gave all the training updates, and also included the truth.  I told my Dad we had given the puppy a longer name,  like a stage name for a cabaret performer:  Mr. Tommy Brock.  To keep it easy, we were calling him Brock for short.  My Dad gave a smile and said, “I like that name.”

 

 

 

 

 

Millie and Mr. Badger

The chickens open their mouths in alarm and stand stock still as Millie shoots out the door, starting her day with a raucous round of barking.  While she busies herself behind the oil tank, Sam and I carry on with our usual daily chores before our pack of three head down the track for a walk and the chance to marvel at the dawn chorus.

During the day, people walk past and dogs come up to the gate.  Millie wags her tail, never making so much as a peep.  But at night time, when everything is done and we let the dogs out for one last “hurrah”, Sam sniffs the perimeter of the yard and Millie races over to the oil tank, closing her day with an encore of protective barking.

What is this all about?  For the past few days, she has been persistent in this behaviour.  Millie will not let you rake leaves or sweep a floor without the odd little yelp, but she is not a big barker.   She watches the rugby on TV.  She bites at your boots if you kick dirt, snow or leaves and she happily chases rabbits and squirrels out of the garden.  Unless we are out on a walk, she will run inside if the wind is too strong, but not before rounding up leaves as they soar past.  She’s a chaser, not a fighter.

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A quick investigation reveals her concern:  we have a resident badger.  Over the years, we have had neighbouring badgers and evidence of their nocturnal visits— track marks, holes with badger poo (yes, they dig little latrines and then shit in them).  About four years ago, I had a rare sighting late one late one night and watched the badger in all of its black and white splendour slowly pass through the yard.  They have killed some of our chickens, damaged our bird feeders, and caused us to make adjustments to the chicken coop, which now has the equivalent security of Fowl Knox.    But now, there is a tunnel opening in the hillside about twenty feet from our front door.

We don’t mind if they want to “sett” up their household and include us in their territory.  Badgers mostly eat earthworms, insects and grubs.  That’s agreeable to us, despite how pathetic the grass looks as a result.  Sometimes they dig up and eat roots and fruit, but with our efforts to protect the garden beds from the rabbits, the badgers are not a problem.  They will sometimes eat small mammals and birds, including chickens but our chickens are safe and secure at night behind multiple layers of  wire defence.  As to the other small mammals — rats and moles — we have no concern about this level of predation.

Badgers are notoriously shy and elusive and will scurry off if disturbed by us, so making a big noise as we open the front door should keep Millie safe.  But the fact that she runs over to the badger’s door, barking an invitation to come out and play or go away, might make the badger inside feel trapped.  And feeling trapped could make it lash out in a bid for freedom.  Millie frightening an animal with long claws and a jaw powerful enough to crush bones doesn’t bear contemplating.

Besides, we welcome critters to Crockern — the more the merrier — however, there are a few conditions for this happy republic:

  • Rabbits, you are to stay out of the vegetable beds.  To this, there are no if’s, and’s, or but’s.
  • Mice, rats, moles and squirrels are welcome, but you must stay outside and not chew anything of value.
  • Birds can nest where you like, but try to not shit on the cars or our heads.  Jackdaws please be warned, the chimney will be repaired in about a month’s time, so hanging out there won’t be easy with the new chimney pots.
  • Foxes and badgers we welcome you, but you must stay away from the chickens.  If you’re hungry, consider the abundance of rabbits, rats, mice, squirrels and such.
  • Bees, spiders and bugs are invited to the Crockern party.  We love how you help the flora and fauna.
  • Lichens and mosses, snakes, frogs and toads you are all welcome, too.
  • Bats, you are always encouraged.
  • But, unwanted solicitations from sales reps, religious organisations, etc. are not welcome.

Without seeming rude, how do we encourage the badger to move house to something more private and maybe a little further afield?  This door is just too close for comfort.  The hillside is located under tree roots which were exposed decades ago when this bit of the property was excavated.  Our oil tanks are located there.  The land is slowly eroding, and we need to build a retaining wall.  The badger is not helping our progress.

Our research reveals that badgers do not like the smell of urine near the opening to their home.  I couldn’t agree more.  Clearly, the logistics of dousing the full garden boundary in human urine are tricky, so we’ve gone for a focused approach:  Roger has taken to peeing near the badger’s tunnel door.

We think this may be just a brief badger visit.  After about a week, there is just the single hole and it is too close to our activities and front door for a relaxing badger lifestyle.   Still, Roger pees outside and Millie continues to announce her arrival outside to one and all with her barking song.  I encourage Sam and Millie to pee in various places to keep the foxes on alert.  Me?  I prefer to avail myself of the toilet.

Old Man Winter

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve had a few friends visit, but none more wild and disruptive than Old Man Winter. Carried into town on gale force winds from the north, he arrived full of bluster, hail, snow, and disruption. It’s been terrific!

After being blown sideways on walks, the weather finally settled and left a beautiful covering of snow. Not so much to cut us off for any length of time, but enough to change the atmosphere. Snow dampens the ambient sounds, while at the same time lifting the various bird songs to a purer tone. Because of this and the play of morning light, I enjoy getting outside first thing. Sometimes I imagine myself a skilled animal tracker as I follow where the fox has been in the night. From the size of his prints, he is a large chap and no doubt would take all our chickens if given half the chance. We also know the route of our visiting badger, who seems to circle the house, the vegetable beds and bird feeders, and then end up down near the horses. The good news is our electric fence is working a treat, as there are no tracks inside its zappy perimeter.

 

Snow just beyond Wistman's Woods.

Snow just beyond Wistman’s Woods.

 

If only these winter scenes were this simple: to enjoy the landscape and note animal tracks in the snow. But as the day unfolds, this snow invites crowds of people who approach it as if it is some sort of drug. They tried it once and can’t get enough of the fluffy stuff! Hundreds of people from surrounding lower-lying areas, which received rain rather than snow, arrive en-mass to go sledding, build snowmen, and enjoy it all. In their joyful frenzy, they leave behind litter, block our access gate with their cars, and this time, remove stones from the stonewall in order to climb over into the next field. It’s hard to imagine going to their houses and doing the same without invoking genuine rancour.

At such times, it is important to turn our attentions to our house and stop fretting about all of the playground behaviours outside. Given the renovation work we’ve accomplished, the house keeps us feeling snug and dry during these cold winter days. And we still have the downstairs to complete. But, we’ve had a few troubles of late: The Aga went from working okay to not working at all. We have a boiler, so this just means no heat in the kitchen, or the ability to cook or have hot water. In this situation, I enter a state of despair about no coffee in the morning. Ever quick to solve the problem, Roger appears with a camp stove. Hurrah!

Yet it took Roger three days of cleaning filters, bleeding fuel lines, lighting and relighting the Aga, before it finally stayed lit.  We know the problem and are replacing the troublesome bit of pipe in the coming days. Still, we are back in business with hot water and the ability to eat warm food. This just in time as we have friends arriving for the weekend.

As sledders, and snowman builders and photographers and hikers and birdwatchers pass by, we were hoping to rest on our laurels, before turning our attention to finishing the bathroom tiling. Never rest on your laurels is the message of the season because as soon as we did, almost to the second, the boiler decided to go on holiday. As it is only a year old, we hadn’t had any troubles and couldn’t help but think all the problems encountered while fiddling around sorting out the Aga were now manifesting themselves in like fashion with the boiler. A quick read of the owner’s manual and we locate the reset button. Depress it for a few seconds, release it, wait a nail biting second or two and, hey presto, the fan begins to whirl. The red light changes to green and the boiler is back.

 

In the meadow, you can build a snowman......

In the meadow, you can build a snowman……

 

“Roger, we really need to set a deadline and stick with it.” is my haunting refrain. The downstairs remains a close-but-no-cigar project as the devil is in the details, and there are more than a few details. The largest one is finishing the tiling in the bathroom, which has been delayed due to all of the above heating fiascos.

With the house now warm, what’s our excuse? That’s easy; it is nicer to go out, walk the hills and soak in the beauty, even in this seemingly dead of winter. The exposed grass is not simply green, but is accented with colours of gold, brown and red. The sky often seems mostly grey, but there are variations in the clouds and the colours poking from behind of blues and yellows and oranges, depending on the sun.  Lately, there has been a full moon and clear star-filled skies at night reflecting off of the snow. To walk along listening to the sounds of my boot on the frozen ground is one of my simple pleasures. And if I stop and look, I am often greeted with a flock of several dozen Fieldfares flying about the gorse bushes and reeds, or a bird of prey taking a break on a high branch, before pursuing its next meal. Most recently, we spied a pair of Goldcrest feasting on seeds in the pine trees near the barn.

At the end of the day, the snow tourists will eventually return to their cars and make their way home. Those of us who live here will breathe a collective sigh of relief. And when Roger and I sit by the fire, contemplating the tiling to do below, we will be easily tempted and then simply adjust the deadline to some future date.

I see a bad moon rising.

I see a bad moon rising.

More fabulous skies!

More fabulous skies!

Under Siege

Casey Ryback (Steven Segal) is a former S.E.A.L. who becomes a cook, and is the only person who can stop a gang of terrorists when they seize control of a US Navy battleship in the 1992 movie Under Siege. And yet, where is he now when we need him? Did he help us prepare our Thanksgiving dinner? Nope. Will he rise to our defence against the predators in our midst? It seems not. As we once again find ourselves engaged in a battle to protect our chickens, Ryback may as well be locked in the freezer.

A few weeks ago we had some very determined badgers threatening our chickens. Typically, the badgers come around at night, dig up a few things – earthworms, insects and grubs — in the garden, and then wander off.  We discovered, one morning, some of the security stones around the wire fence perimeter of the chicken coop had been moved. These are not light little stones easily held aloft. Rather, they are Dartmoor granite rocks, weighing about 30-40 pounds. To lift these, it takes two hands and an ergonomic awareness to avoid back injury. Yet, they were tossed around the garden with abandon.   This is a most sinister and foul creature.

Having returned the stones and added extra reinforcement, we found the next morning an even larger stone from the base of a 15-foot high wall moved a few feet away and next to it, a sizeable pile of dirt. In the course of a single evening, the badgers had moved this 60-pound rock and dug a horizontal tunnel some seven feet in length. What took them perhaps an hour or two to unearth, took Roger an equal amount of time to repair.

Hard to believe, but this is the rock the badgers moved in order to begin their big dig.

Hard to believe, but this is the rock the badgers moved in order to begin their big dig.

A coop within a coop.  It's a fortress, really.

A coop within a coop. It’s a fortress, really.

Badgers have the ability to tunnel after ground-dwelling rodents, so perhaps they were simply after the rats or moles who regularly burrow beneath the grass? I console myself with this idea. But, I’m no fool and am fully aware badgers will eat small mammals and birds, including chickens. Our well fortified chicken coop sits on a cobbled stone base, within a stone and wire perimeter, and yet these badgers seemed to be attempting to tunnel underneath in order to pop up inside. Possible? If so, we need some help.

There is a long tradition of the military on Dartmoor dating back to the Napoleonic Wars. Today, there remains a large British Army training camp and the Ministry of Defense uses three areas of northern moorland for their manoeuvres and live-firing exercises. In fact, one is just over the hill from us. Pyrotechnics, digging, low-flying helicopters are all apart of the military practice on Dartmoor.   But, no where in the recently extended 40-year agreement to continue the use of land for their activities does it require the military to, “help protect Catherine & Roger’s chickens.”

Badgers. Spiders. Moles.  These represent some of the recent British Invasion to Crockern. Unbelievably, and despite the evidence, the badgers have not caused the latest sustained confrontations. It has been Mr. Fox!

In the summer, we had lots of rabbits attempting to feast on the garden’s bounty. Our successful use of bird netting kept the chickens and the rabbits out of the vegetable beds, with only minor nibbling on a few plants on the edges, which we were prepared to sacrifice. Lately, I’ve noticed a distinct absence of rabbits. No sightings. No nibbled plant leaves. No poop evidence. Nothing. It hadn’t dawned on me that it could be the rabbits have been engaged in their own bit of animal warfare, and are seriously down in ranks. But when Roger and I suffered two separate mid-day losses of chickens to a cheating fox, the penny dropped.

The weather has turned colder and the days shorter, the grasses, bushes, and trees, are ready for winter having changed colour and dropped their leaves, generally providing less camouflage and making spotting the local wildlife easier. Scarcity of food and cover means seeing a fox on the hillside during daylight hours is increasingly more likely. I find myself pausing longer in the top windows, staring out upon the grasses as if I’m in a wildlife hide, waiting to spot him, my now archenemy.

Daily, we are reminded of the predator and prey relationship with soaring buzzards in the sky, or a ravaged carcass in the deep grass near a path.  Like any skilled predator, the fox has marked Crockern as easy pickings and will return. Coming once during the day whilst we were out on a walk was bold. Returning another day, when we were out in the garden, was considerably bolder.   It will be back. With no sign of outside help, we are left to our own efforts to protect and defend. With the money we’ve saved in a jar from egg sales, we’ve purchased electric fencing.

I don’t like it. It’s ugly. It is in the way. I can’t easily climb over it. But, the chickens get to roam around outside during the day. It gives us peace of mind during these winter months when the food supply is less abundant and the chance increased of a fox attack on our free ranging hens. The chickens are oblivious to the threats around them. All they know is being cooped up all day is not half as much fun as scratching around in the dirt and preying on worms.

The flock of seven, checking out their new fencing.

The flock of seven, checking out their new fencing.

 

The new electric fencing.

The new electric fencing.

Calling Miss Marple

When I stumbled upon the aftermath of murder, I felt certain we would be able to quickly identify the culprit.  I’ve learned the basics for conducting a crime scene investigation from watching countless episodes of CSI and know, along with the detective’s shrewd intelligence, crime scene investigations are usually conducted in the dark using special hand held lights which emit a blue or red glow and the dress code is designed to enable a quick transition to a swanky bar following work.  Simply being aware of these criteria, however, does not mean we will be able to solve our very own Crockern Farm “Who Done It?”

Recently one morning, Sam and I returned from our walk, set out the wild bird feeders and about to feed the chickens, when something gave us pause.  Usually we are greeted with a chorus of demanding squawks and chirps from the chicken coop, which roughly translate as:  “What took you so long?”  “Do you think we want to stay in here all day?”  “Oh sure, you’ve got an opposable thumb and can open the latches, but we’ve got amazing hearing and eye sight, so top that!”  “ You want eggs?  I’ll give you eggs!”  But on this morning, we neither heard a chirp, nor did we see busy hens beating a path to the door.  Instead, Sam and I stumbled upon the remains of a brutal and savage nighttime attack.  The violence evidenced by feathers, blood and body parts strewn about had me convinced it was a Henocide and we had lost all of our chickens.  But a quick assessment of the scene revealed two hens high on a perch, another standing with her back to the incident, as if she just couldn’t process the events, and the fourth in a nesting box laying an egg.

Miss Marple

Miss Marple

Hoping to avoid missing an investigative trick as we grapple to determine the perpetrator and solve the cruel murders of our two hens, I’ve searched the Internet, chicken books and watched Margaret Rutherford playing the amateur detective Miss Marple as she single-handedly solves yet another murder in the village of St. Mary Mead.  Sadly, Roger and I are launching a slightly hampered murder inquiry.  We are seriously short-staffed lacking police officers, CSI units, district attorneys, medical examiners, specialists, detectives and Miss Marple, herself!  It’s up to the home team — me, Roger, Sam and the four surviving hens — to solve this crime mystery.

The steps to which we must adhere are straightforward:  First, Secure the Scene.  This is easier said than done, because the “scene” includes possible witnesses, victims and, of course, suspects and keeping “unauthorized personnel” from moving through the area contaminating evidence.  I failed on this front:  Sam was sniffing everything, the chickens were making a break for the free range world outside of their nighttime home, and I was, well, a little sickened by the brutality before me.  I set down the chicken food and fled the scene.  I brought in Roger as backup.

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Contrary to what I have been led to believe from televised crime dramas, after securing the scene, you don’t immediately start to recover evidence, but must first Define the Extent of the Crime Scene by Conducting a “Walk-Through.”  Every good investigator knows to not touch anything, but this murder was disturbing, and we aren’t preparing a case for criminal court, so Roger and I contaminated the evidence chain and cleared up the massacre.

Hoping to gain an insight into how and why this crime was committed and, more importantly, the point of entry and exit for the perpetrator we turned our attention to the walk-through and pondered:  Who or what would do such a thing?  Why didn’t it kill all the chickens?  Will it return?  How can we tighten security and keep our remaining four chickens safe?

We have a safe newly erected hen house sited within another fenced area, which had served for years as their coop.  Before Roger built the new and improved hen house, two of the older chickens always opted to roost up high, within the fenced-in area.  Two others (the victims) liked sleeping in nesting boxes, again within the fenced area but outside of the hen house.   Weekly security checks of the perimeter to see if there are any gaps in the two-foot thick stonewalls and three layers of chicken wire revealed a seemingly impenetrable boundary.  It was now breached and we needed some fast answers to solve this crime.  With no obvious points of entry or exit, our next step was to Interview Surviving Witnesses.  Unfortunately, our witnesses are chickens and no amount of questioning will help us gain the required overview of that night.   So, we shooed them away, focusing again on how the killer gained access.

As we studied each corner and seam to the chicken’s home, our conversation turned to:  Rule out Possible Suspects.  In any crime, there is a probability the victim knows the culprit and so we had to also consider ourselves.  Unfortunately, we had motive.  One sunny afternoon about a week before the murders, I looked out to see how our vegetable beds were progressing only to spy all six of the chickens turning our lovely winter garden into their private dust baths!  Chickens and vegetables do not go together, unless in a Gumbo.   But Roger and I have alibis!  We were asleep and Sam could testify to that, and besides, we loved those chickens.  Despite our brief and fleeting reasons, we removed ourselves as possible “perps”.

Topping our list of probable suspects is the fox.  Typically, a fox in the hen house – where the prey cannot escape – indulges in what’s known as “surplus killing”, killing far more than it could consume.  Even if not hungry, a fox will kill everything it can and cache it for later use.  This is sensible because not every day is a successful hunting day.  It’s a little like buying extra food and throwing it into the freezer in case we don’t make it to the shops.    Foxes are nimble, so it could have worked its way over the wire along the roofline, but four chickens remained unharmed.  The carcasses of the two killed were not entirely devoured, nor taken back to a den.  This is not typical fox behaviour, so does this make the fox innocent?

Consider the badger.  We’ve spotted it nearby at night and know it is attracted to bird food, layers pellets, and chickens.  We no longer leave the bird feeders out at night, so maybe the badger had turned its attention to our hens!  A quick survey of experts tells us that a badger usually kills by going through the breast, which is consistent with what we found at the crime scene.  Unlike a fox, a badger will stay put and eat what it kills, or just leave behind its kill.  But how did it enter and exit the coop without leaving a gaping hole?

In order to keep the chickens safe with the culprit still on the loose, we have put them into witness protection.  Each night all four hens are placed into the chicken coop, the access ramp removed and the door locked.   This involves catching the two who would prefer to roost up high outside of the hen house.  Any possible holes, even the smallest, have been blocked with stones and additional chicken wire.  And all food is removed.  They are in lock down.  Good thing too as we’ve seen evidence of predator return:  chewed wood, upturned water bowls, and my strategically placed props of wood moved from their original positions.

Loss is never easy.  Roger and I didn’t name these chickens, because we couldn’t tell them apart.  The two who died so horrifically were from the four we rescued in November.  When we brought them home, they had no feathers and looked ready to be cooked except they were walking around.  After a few weeks, their feathers returned and they enjoyed the free-range chicken life.  They scratched and hunted for bugs and worms, they curiously assisted all our outside projects, and they produced gorgeous eggs.  Four months later, two of them copped it.

Ways of Seeing

Moss mimicking the landscape in the distance

Moss mimicking the landscape in the distance

One of the things I’m coming to appreciate since moving to this untamed wilderness, known as Dartmoor, is how a single place can provide a multitude of experiences.    Understanding the tiny and subtle changes, rather than only the dramatic shifts, that come with the passing of the season is best, I think, observed by being in one place.  We may have given up the convenience of a corner shop when we moved, but we have gained a privileged insight into the lives of other creatures through our unexpected encounters with them.

In the movie Smoke, Harvey Keitel takes a photograph from the same corner shop every morning at the same time.  His dedication to this daily process fixed in both time and location teaches us, the viewers, that life may be seemingly unchanging until one pauses to notice the little details, changing the perception of the every-day-familiar.

We’ve recently been gripped by another prolonged cold spell and yet the season is slowly and surely advancing.  The tiny increments of winter turning into spring are almost unnoticeable, were it not for the later arrival of the sunset each day.   As the days grow longer, the evenings are providing an extra hour of light and with it, birdsong.   I love hearing the melodic tunes of Robins and Blackbirds as they kick it out with purity of tone and impeccable phrasing, just like The First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald.  We have at least two pairs of each making their homes nearby the house.

Our friends were visiting for a week recently with their 5-year old.  While Mark provided much needed help (and master skills!) on the plastering of the ceilings, Lorenzo provided a way to view our world anew.  With each “Why?” – his preferred and nearly exclusive question – I found his natural curiosity infectious.  His impersonation of the chickens as he was feeding them, reminded me to never stop observing.

Chickens

Getting their attention.

Lorenzo feeding the chickens

Lorenzo feeding the chickens

Across from our barn is a collection of mature trees – Ash, Rowen, Oak, Sycamore, Beech, Laburnum — under which there are now clumps of snowdrops, each with their delicate stalks holding a drooping white flower as they stand their ground declaring spring to be on its way.   My friend Paul wrote recently in an e-mail, “I miss snowdrops.  They’re so quick off the mark, so optimistic!”  He’s right:  Snowdrops, along with tender daffodil shoots and the extended daylight, are our hopeful signs that this cold snap is not forever.

Early Snowdrops

Early Snowdrops

Across the river, atop the hill sits a pine forest and living in the treetops are several Grey Heron.  We’ve spotted at least six.  Are they building nests for their future families?  All the birds seem to be preparing for breeding season.  The mating calls are starting and brightly coloured males are strutting their stuff, including an unusual display of sexual prowess:  several Great Tits positioned on the fence with their wings widely spread were showing off colour, form and aerobatics like regular Flyboys.   All about us, nests are being mended or newly constructed, including at least two by the Jackdaws in the barn.

Not everything survives, however.  Up on the hillside outside our house was a dead sheep.  We are not certain what caused this ewe to perish, but her remaining carcass has been the focal point for most of the dogs accompanying their owners on walks.  Despite her fatality, there are about 100 heavily pregnant ewes on the moors surrounding us.  These sturdy creatures have mostly stayed away from climbing onto our walls, but there are a few who have it hardwired into their brains that they must clamber into our yard.  We continue our vigilance in maintaining the walls and recently have resorted to leaning less attractive wood pallets against the preferred sheep entrance points.  We are hoping to keep the little lambs out after they are born.

Born they will be, too.  I’ve been invited to help the local farmer with the lambing season.  I’m thrilled to do this, and confess that I’ve never done anything like it before.  It was agreed that if I got in the way or proved useless – a definite possibility – I’d be sent on my way.  I’m feeling a little tentative about the lambing since the last birth I attended was that of a hamster when I was 7.  After the litter was born, the mother hamster ate her young.

New line of defence to keep those determined sheep out.

New line of defence to keep those determined sheep out.

Sometimes, it’s not my eyes, but my ears, that guide me to something new.  Sam and I took a brisk walk one morning when the moors were covered with a dense fog obscuring any visibility beyond the immediate path, which I now know well.  With the thick, white, ethereal cloud cover drifting and swirling about, I understand how one could easily get lost in Dartmoor.  As we negotiated a boggy bit of the path, I heard a spooky bird call with its somewhat unpleasant “chirp, chirp, chirp” in the foreground and a haunting Theremin-like moan in the background.  I was uncertain what I was hearing, so looked to Sam for signs of alarm.  He seemed relaxed, so we carried on and with our next steps, I spotted a medium sized brownish bird zigzagging low to the ground.  A Snipe!  I remember going on Snipe hunts when I was young.  These are practical jokes designed to leave the uninitiated out in the woods while everyone in the know heads back to the campfire for a good laugh.  Recently in the UK, the Snipe has undergone some declines in numbers, placing it on the Amber list for the RSPB, so it is a treat to spot one, and know that they do exist beyond the silly pranks of older siblings.

 

Theremin player (found on the Internet)

Theremin player (found on the Internet)

Walking past the window overlooking the river, Roger spotted a buzzard hovering with wings spread as it snatched up its prey from the reeds.  We grabbed our binoculars and as we spied on his dining, we noticed holes in the ground nearby:  A badger set!  How long have we been looking at this particular spot of land without seeing what was there?

Badger Set in hillside

Badger Set in hillside

We know we have badgers.  I’ve seen one in the garden.  We’ve had our birdfeeders pulled from their hanging positions, only to be found the next morning dragged through the fence and into the fields beyond.  While bent and now broken, they still hold the bird food we set out each day.  To avoid further damage, we now take the feeders in at night and leave the bent poles from which they hang, standing in the ground as if afflicted with osteoporosis.  Spotting this badger set is thrilling so we set out for a closer look.  Crossing the river, climbing up the hill and negotiating two barbed-wire fences, we found at least ten holes scattered about the hillside, each with its telltale arched oval opening.  These are unlikely to be the badgers responsible for the damage to our bird feeders, as badgers evidently don’t swim unless they must.  Somewhere on our side of the river there is another badger set for us to discover.

In a few weeks, the Vernal Equinox will arrive.  Such a great day as it marks the point when the sun gives over to the northern hemisphere, making our days longer and lighter.  With the increased daylight, we will have more seasonal changes to observe, including the return of many of the migrant birds from their African winter homes.  I’m looking forward to welcoming back the Swallows, House Martins, Warblers and the Cuckoo who makes its brief spring home in the trees beyond the house.

Don’t ask me “Why?” but I just enjoy seeing – and hearing – all of these visitors around Crockern.